- As the nation gets into a conversation with itself to find a lasting cure, the jury is out on whether the present generation of Young Turks is missing in action.
Recently some old wag who asked me not to mention his name told me majority young politicians we have today are engaged in what he called 3Bs — bad manners of storming church services, building a personality cult around 2022 politics, and breaking the law.
The old man concluded by comparing today Young Turks with an inexperienced young bull that mounts from the front.
Since independence, Kenya has been in four phases of transition, namely, laying the foundation, standing up to the status quo, retracing our steps, and now a nation in a conversation with itself. In each of the stages, young men and women have emerged to spearhead change from the front. But as this writer reckons, in the ongoing transition Young Turks have elected to mount from the opposite side.
A remarkable thing at the time Kenya attained independence is the country oozed with youth and innovation. Though the man at the helm, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, was at advanced age of 74, he surrounded himself with young talent that bubbled with energy.
With exception of two who were in their 50s, the rest of members of Kenya’s first cabinet were in their 30s and 40s. So were the assistant ministers. The permanent secretaries were all below 40.
The country was spoilt for youthful talent. For lack of space, we single out three of the Young Turks at independence — Tom Mboya, Mwai Kibaki, and Pio Gama Pinto.
Historian David Goldsworthy has described Mboya as architect of the Kenya political and economic infrastructure at independence, “who effortlessly succeeded in whatever he touched, and could be relied upon for any task.”
At 31, Mboya was founder secretary general of the party that led Kenya to independence, Kanu. Without training in law, he was appointed minister for Constitutional Affairs, then minister for Economic Planning yet he’d never sat in an economics class.
He was a born genius who could hold unto his own with best brains locally and abroad, though his formal education had terminated at junior high school. Later when he was admitted at Ruskin College, Oxford, as mature student, his lecturers didn’t know what to do with him.
The college principal would write about this unusual student from Kenya: “He is in such different position from the average Ruskin student. He would probably have to be run on a very loose rein.” Not knowing what diploma or degree Mboya should study for, they allowed him roam from class to class picking whatever caught his interest.
Pio Gama Pinto, a Kenyan of Indian extraction, was the Mboya equivalent on the opposite side. Like the later, he began in trade union politics when in his 20s, then moved on to be main brain and architect of radical politics in Kenya, and whose patron saint was first Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
Then US ambassador to Kenya, William Attwood — obvious with benefit of CIA secret file on Pinto — would write of him: “Pinto was Odinga chief brain-trust. On his assassination, Odinga solely missed his guidance and counsel as demonstrated in his committing blunder after blunder in the months that followed Pinto’s death.”
Though bitter rivals when they lived, Mboya and Pinto, ironically, had a common fate in death through an assassin’s bullet.
Unlike Mboya and Pinto who were cut from political cloth, Mwai Kibaki was baked in the kitchen of economics but strayed into politics. In later life, literature maestro Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o would reckon how he fled the economics class at Makerere College after a youthful lecturer called Mwai Kibaki “scrolled a complicated mathematics formula on the blackboard” and made him feel he was better off studying words not numbers.
On joining politics as Kanu executive officer, the youthful Kibaki single-handedly wrote the manifesto and economic blueprint for the independence party.
In later years as minister for Finance and Economic Planning, delegates from Africa and other developing countries would unanimously pick him to speak on their behalf at international forums.
With Kenya’s foundation laid in the 1960s and political competition from the radical wing extinguished, Kenya entered a complacent period in mid 1970s and the ruling class began to misbehave. There was need for a new dispensation to tame the executive. The third parliament elected in 1974 rose to the occasion.
The war cry was sounded right on day one when backbenchers, majority who were Young Turks in their 20s and 30s, stood up to intimidation by the state agencies and elected a radical among them, Jean Marie Seroney, to be deputy speaker. Years later, then Clerk to the National Assembly Leonard Ngugi would relate to me how he’d go into hiding immediately he declared Seroney the duly elected deputy speaker despite warning by Attorney General Charles Njonjo that a cell had been set aside at Kamiti Prison for him should he declare Seroney winner.
The battle lines were drawn. Only two months into the life of the third parliament, firebrand MP JM Kariuki was assassinated. Parliament went in flames as one MP shouted “ours is a government of murderers!”, and another screamed that “the hyenas in power and money have eaten one of their own!”